Memo to the Mainstream Media: Stop Worshiping at the Failed Cult of Free Trade

12/20/2007 05:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reporters often heap scorn upon the rigid views of social conservatives and evangelical Christians, but very few of them acknowledge their own overwhelming religious bias: too many reporters worship unflinchingly at the discredited cult of "free trade," even in the absence of facts to support their beliefs.

They even have a name for the heretics and unbelievers: "protectionists."

There's a piece on the Bloomberg wire today that follows this script exactly. It's another one of those "if the voters were only smart enough to realize the benefits of trade they would not support these pandering candidates" hatchet jobs which underestimate the views of real people and overemphasize an economic philosophy that doesn't really apply to our 21st century economy.

The title of the piece, "Democrats Find Protectionism a Hard Sell in Iowa, New Hampshire" is the first flaw.

Any candidate who casts a critical eye on our trade agreements and trade policy and calls for desperately needed change is not a protectionist. They are visionary and courageous. Congress and the Administration fix laws all the time that are not working. So why not examine NAFTA or our trade laws as they relate to China? It's time that the media elites wake up and discover that accountability in trade policy is a good thing, and blind faith in a 19th century philosophy is naïve and dangerous. On the flip side, a candidate who looks at our entire trade picture, including a $763 billion trade deficit, 3.3 million manufacturing job losses, a spate of toxic imports from China, and widespread cheating in the form of subsidies and counterfeiting by our trade partners with virtually no response from Washington, and thinks it is great, is not a "free trade" candidate. He or she is deluded.

But putting labels on candidates like "protectionist" or "free trade" saves a lot of digging to really get at the facts.

The Bloomberg reporters deserve credit for raising this important issue. But their own claim that Iowa and New Hampshire "benefit from free-trade policies that many residents nonetheless blame for lost jobs" is found nowhere in reality. The reporters cite statistics on exports--not bothering to consider imports--and the states' unemployment rate to bolster their case, backed up by a couple of economics professors and a D.C.-based free-trade pundit.

In reality, Iowa has lost more than 22,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the Hawkeye state has shed 17,700 jobs because of our trade deficit with China alone. In New Hampshire, 27,400 manufacturing jobs have disappeared since 2000. Moreover, the Granite State has lost a greater share of its employment to imbalanced trade with China--2.1 percent or 13,000 jobs--than any other state in the nation.

Looking at the states' unemployment rates alone is not a good indicator of the benefits of trade, but the authors assume otherwise. Manufacturing jobs come with better pay and benefits than the service sector jobs that replace them. In addition, many younger people are deferring entrance into the job market and older workers are dropping out completely, which skews the unemployment statistic. So it is not a particularly useful indicator of the benefits of trade.

While the reporting duo correctly cites the closing of Maytag in Newton, Iowa, they underestimated the jobs loss--reporting 1,000--when the actual number ranges from 1,800 to 2,600--depending on how many years you want to track back.

The story also underemphasizes the role that manufacturing plays in both states. In Iowa and New Hampshire, manufacturing is still the largest economic sector and very relevant to future employment opportunities in both states.

Even the Bloomberg/LA Times poll from September 2007 is inaccurately characterized in the article, which claims that voters are choosing between a "free-trade" or "anti-free trade" candidate, when the question was:

"Do you prefer a presidential nominee who believes that trade agreements like the North American trade agreement with Mexico and Canada will benefit the U.S. economy, or do you prefer a presidential nominee who believes that trade agreements like the North American trade agreement with Mexico and Canada will hurt the U.S. economy?"

It's hard to understand how a voter would interpret this question; it's a bad example of poll-ese designed to skew the result. If the question is asked more directly, the results are conclusively skeptical of our current trade policy among Republicans and Democrats. Voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina responded overwhelmingly to a message of reform and accountability in our trade policies in nearly every other research survey. You can examine one example here.

As someone who has talked with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire firsthand, I can tell you that the economy, jobs, and globalization are top-of-mind issues for many of them--factory workers, town mayors, farmers, and small businessmen. None of them are afraid of trade, and they are all convinced that if they have a fair opportunity to compete in the global marketplace, they will do well. But the current rules are so stacked against them that it is impossible to guarantee fair competition--and the voters know that. What voters want, and need, is a president who will do something about it.

Perhaps that is why Iowa voters spent about half an hour during the National Public Radio Democratic debate this month quizzing candidates about their views on China and trade. It's also why Republicans and Democrats flocked to our town hall meetings in Iowa and New Hampshire this fall to discuss trade, manufacturing, and the election.

Between now and New Hampshire, there will be more attempts to mischaracterize trade and politics. A careful review of the facts will help to keep things in perspective. All of the leading Democratic candidates, including Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama, are calling for changes in our trade policies. There are certainly differences between the candidates, but trade policy has spurred a healthy competition of ideas among the three. While Mike Huckabee's appeal to Iowa Republicans on social issues is well documented, his criticisms of outsourcing also contribute to his support. These leaders of the pack pay careful attention to the facts on the ground. The mainstream media should start doing the same.